The 14th of February 2012 was the day I finally got to drive an electric car. Yes, PetrolBlog has propelled itself into the 21st century by experiencing what some people predict is the future of motoring.
That point is debatable of course. There are alternative fuels in development and electric cars have some way to go before they can be considered a realistic alternative to the internal combustion engine. Not only are the cars costly to buy, but there just isn’t the infrastructure to support a nation of electric cars. What’s more, the charging time and the anticipated range of an average electric car just isn’t enough to satisfy most drivers.
But like it or not, electric cars are becoming more common place and can now be seen as just another model in a manufacturer’s range of vehicles. In a relatively short space of time, they’ve gone from being the slightly eccentric uncle in the corner to the perfect dinner party guest.
So when Renault kindly invited me to test some more of their cars in Gloucestershire and I saw that the Fluence Z.E was available, I thought, why not?
The first thing that struck me about the Fluence is just how normal it looks. For sure, you have to look past the car’s huge posterior, but you’d need to be a keen-eyed car spotter to identify the Fluence’s electric origins. Unlike some other electric vehicles, the Fluence just looks like a booted Megane. But then, this is exactly what it is. In other markets, you can buy a Megane saloon and, aside from a few touches that tip the hat to its electric credentials, it looks just like this. An electric Shatchback then?
The sense of normality continues inside too. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but I thought the Fluence would shout ELECTRIC more. “Look at me, I’ve bought an electric car and I want the world to know what I’ve done.” But there’s none of that with the Fluence. It just looks so normal and for that reason, it gets a PetrolBlog thumbs up.
One neat touch can be found on the Fluence’s built-in TomTom sat nav system. Programme in your destination and the unit will tell you if you have enough charge left to get there. And if you haven’t, it will tell you where the nearest charging point is. A nice touch that could save people from being stranded by the roadside. Not so good if you’re trying to get home and your sat nav tells you that you won’t get there!
The starting key is normal too, but what it does is distinctly abnormal. Turn it clockwise and the Fluence does a series of pre-flight checks before a little green ‘GO’ icon is illuminated. Push the lever into ‘D’ and the Fluence moves quietly away. It’s a surreal experience that’s totally at odds with everything we associated with driving. It’s not silent. Instead you’re treated to a sound that isn’t too dissimilar to that of a jet engine.
At higher speeds, the only noise you hear is the sound of the tyres and the wind. It’s actually quite noisy and makes you realise just how much car noise isn’t generated by the engine. This means the common assumption that electric cars are silent is a misconception. Another Fluence drove past me when I was taking photos and it was perfectly audible. Having said that, it is possible to sneak up on roadside crows who are feasting on road kill. The Fluence could be the ideal car for silent assassins and stalkers then?
On the road, the Fluence’s driving experience is…er…yep, you guessed it, rather normal. The handling is composed and there’s little in the way of body roll. It’s no drivers’ car though, with the weight of the batteries in the boot making the steering feel very light. It also seems rather easy to make the front wheels lose traction, with the traction control light flashing more times than I can remember on any recent test car. The roads weren’t noticeably slippy, so I’m putting this down to the batteries again.
Being electric, the Fluence has bags of immediate torque, so it feels quite quick off the mark. Its smoothness and overall sense of effort belies the fact that the Fluence Z.E has a top speed of just 84mph and will take 13.7 seconds to reach 60. So although it’s unlikely that you’ll find too many Fluences jostling for position in the outside lane of the M4, it’s more than adequate for everyday needs. And let’s face it, you’re either buying the Fluence Z.E to save money or to save the planet, so you’ll be leaving your heavy right boot at home. When you want to slow down, you simply lift off the ‘gas’ and the car’s regenerative braking system brings you slowly to a halt. No drama, no fuss. Just normality.
It’s really hard to criticise the Renault Fluence. By delivering some normality to the electric car sector, it probably says more about EVs than many of its more flamboyant and high profile rivals. Charging time will range from three and half to eight hours if using a charging post, or ten to twelve hours if using a domestic 3-pin socket. A full charge will deliver a range of 115 miles if driven carefully, which is more than enough for most people’s daily needs. At £18,395 plus options for the Dynamique model, it’s more within reach than other EVs. The Nissan Leaf will set you back at least £25,990. Both prices are after removing the government’s plug-in car grant.
Unlike the Leaf, the Fluence doesn’t come with batteries. No, with Renault it’s a case of ‘batteries not included’. Instead, you lease the batteries, with contracts available from 12 to 60 months. The cheapest price is £69.60 a month for a 6,000 mile 48 or 60 month contract, with a 18,000 mile 12 month contract costing £135 per month. I can see the long term, low mileage option winning favour, especially for less than £70 per month. Of course, you do need to factor in the cost of electricity too.
It’s not a car you’ll ever love and I’d certainly be in no rush to buy one, but it’s hard not to respect the Fluence. It’s practical, has a decent sized boot, isn’t ridiculously expensive and has a flexible approach to battery leasing. It deserves to succeed.
But the irony is, Renault told me that they’re expecting hundreds, rather than thousands, of sales. It’s in the UK merely to bolster Renault’s electric vehicle offer. A prelude to more innovative and more exciting cars in the future. The bonkers Twizy will arrive later in the year, as will the ZOE, a car that not only looks great, but also has a better electric set-up. ‘Fast charge’ will provide 80% of charge from empty in 30 minutes.
Renault UK can afford to take a relaxed view of the Fluence because the Israeli government has ordered a whopping 100,000 of the things. Rather than using it as a means to become the electric Shatchback capital of the world, Israel sees it as a means to a political end. Electric cars represent a chance to live without a reliance on oil, which has obvious advantages. So, through Better Place, a complete infrastructure has been put in place which, in simple terms, will see batteries available in a kind of ‘drive-through’ system. If you realise that your batteries are running low, you simply locate the nearest outlet and then drive in to allow a robot to exchange your ailing battery for a new one. It’s like a Costa for your cars. And it makes a whole lot of sense. You purchase the car under a four-year service plan, which includes the installation and maintenance of an in-house charging point and free access to the chargers. No wonder Denmark is doing something similar.
We’re some way from seeing something like is in Britain and it remains to be seen if electric cars are the answer to our need to find alternative ways of fuelling our cars. But right now, it’s all we’ve got and the Fluence makes a strong case for itself. Whether, in years to come, we see the Fluence and its rivals as the genesis of a new breed of cars or simply a stop-gap on the way to something more permanent remains to be seen.
The Fluence may not be everyone’s electric dream, but there are worse ways of rocking down Electric Avenue.
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